Living in a ski town is not solely about powder days and party nights. Well, sometimes it kinda is, but the town—or, in our case, county—never stops running when the snow piles up to your navel on New Year’s Eve. Behind the postcard scenes that have attracted visitors to Summit County for decades exists a community of people who turn the gears (that turn the chairs) every day and night to keep paradise in business—and who simultaneously create a life in the mountains for themselves.

The range of ways to make a living at 9,000 feet is varied (from mushing to waiting tables), yet aside from plowing snow, no gig is any less important than the next. Here, drawing from years of experience, 10 Summit County residents explain what they do and how they came to do it. In the process, they affirm how not just to live but to seize every day—or week, or lifetime—in the capital of Colorado’s ski country.

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Dan Stillman

Job: Ski tech/owner, AMR Ski and Board, Breckenridge
Years in Summit: 37
Hometown: Bronx, New York

I’ve been working in Breckenridge ski shops since 1982. We see a huge range of customers, from farmers and ranchers from Kansas to jet-setters who fly in from Paris; same prices for everyone. But I will say if someone walks in with a $20,000 diamond ring, and they start working me for deals, I’m a little less likely to say yes than I would be with a family who saved all year to have 20 people in a condo and ski for a week.

My job is to repair and rent gear and relate my knowledge to the customer. I think people at least want to hear your spiel about equipment, even if they don’t understand it. They want to feel like you’re giving them something more than just skis, boots, and poles. I tell my employees not to take anything the customer says personally. You have to be easygoing and let things roll off your shoulders. You’re here to provide a service while making sure people get the most out of their vacation dollars and come back to the shop.

We keep the fridge full of beer, and if we see a customer who just drove 15 hours with his family—and he’s totally stressed, and they’re all barking at each other—it’s not unusual for us to hand that guy a beer and say, “Here, you want a beer? Relax.” I think we still want to have people fall in love with this place.


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Dave Roth

Job: Lift operator, Arapahoe Basin
Years in Summit: 14
Hometown: TK, Florida

I started at A-Basin in 2001, then went to work at Copper doing reservations and PR, and I came back in 2011 to be the assistant manager of lift operations and ticket scanning. We have 45 to 50 lift operators to run our six lifts and two carpets. I ski about 95 percent of my workdays. Obviously, that’s the reason I’ve been doing this so long.

Most people don’t realize that the chair don’t care. It’s a piece of metal, a machine. Sometimes it seems that when guests go from the “wait here” line to the “load here” line, they start daydreaming. You have to pay attention: these are 400- to 500-pound chairs, and they’re coming around fast.

For the most part, people are stoked to come up and go skiing, but it’s part of the job to get hassled. I’d say we have a handful of guests who really appreciate what we do. They ski around with bite-size candy bars and hand them out to us at every lift. Then during the holidays, for those of us who are over 21, we’ve got one gentleman who passes out little airplane shot bottles. We tell our staff to pocket those and not drink them until later. Other people bring Christmas cookies. Little things like that make our day so much better.

The term “liftie” is OK. But I always like to tell our operators when I’m training them, “You’re not ‘just a liftie.’ You’re more than that: you’re a lift operator. Keep your head high. You have an important job here.”


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Johanna Hirschboeck

Job: Barista/owner, Cuppa Joe, Breckenridge
Years in Summit: 16
Hometown: Oak Park, Illinois

I think a coffee shop is really important to a ski town, as a meeting place, a work space, and morning social interaction, particularly in the winters before you head to the slopes. One of the reasons we introduced the oatmeal latte—which is a bowl of oatmeal and a latte all mixed into one integrated, edible/drinkable beverage—was so people could have their breakfast and coffee in one cup and drink it as they’re walking to the gondola.

I’ve been doing coffee for nine years now. We’re moving away from dark roasts, which were essentially burnt coffees served in a fast-food fashion popularized by Starbucks. Roasts are getting lighter. It’s a whole elevation of the coffee scene and taking it to a level you might see with really good wines, where you can experience these crazy flavors and notes and aspects.

I think a lot of people have this impression that being a barista isn’t a skilled position. But it takes a lot of training and dedication—picking up on what makes the espresso good and what makes a quality shot comes with drinking a lot of coffee and with time. We serve about 50 different drinks. I love being an independent shop a block and a half from Starbucks.


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Jimmy Jacox

Job: Bartender, The Moose Jaw, Frisco
Years in Summit: 20
Hometown: Long Island, New York

I moved here from New York with two friends. Our first night in town, we ended the night at Tiffany’s, and as we were leaving there was an altercation. We weren’t involved, but the cops thought we were. So my best friend ended up getting thrown in jail. We bailed him out with a mountain bike and a shotgun, because that was all we had to sell to Monty the bail bondsman. We slept in the car for 10 days. We wanted to be here.

Bartending is not just making drinks and giving people a tab. It’s making people happy. When I see someone coming, or I know the squeak of their left shoe or the jingle of their keys, and their drink is on the bar before they sit down—that makes someone’s day. Being able to control people is important, too. It’s hard cutting someone off who doesn’t think they’ve had too much; usually it turns into a confrontation. But if you can say, “Here’s a glass of water; have that, and we’ll see how it goes,” then when they try to stand up and go to the bathroom, and they wobble and bounce into the wall, they start to realize: maybe the bartender’s right.

I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s easier to pick up girls in a ski town if you’re a bartender. First, you have a job. You most likely showered that day. And you have booze—and it could potentially be free.


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Dave Helmer

Job: Defense attorney, Helmer Law, Frisco
Years in Summit: 40
Hometown: Colorado Springs

We’ve done everything from trespassing to attempted murder. I’ve done vehicular homicide cases. I’ve done lots of divorce cases; that’s the bread and butter, if you will. It’s a lot of resolving problems. That’s how I approach practicing law.

At one point my secretaries were calling some of my clients “you did what?!” clients, because they could hear me behind the door saying, “You did what?!” We are not living out the Wild West ideal here. You want to do that, you go to Alma, you go to Leadville, you go to Kremmling. Summit is too urbanized. We’re only an hour from Denver.

People who come here from the Front Range and out of state don’t realize the effects of altitude on their bodies. They think they can acclimate in four hours or even four days, but it can take longer than that. So I see a lot of people who are not cautious enough with their drinking, and once they drink they tend to leave their brains at home and do things that make you wonder. That’s the best way I can put it.


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Michelle Gmitro

Job: Ski patroller, Arapahoe Basin
Years in Summit: 11
Hometown: Bloomington, Minnesota

Ski patrollers are glorified ski bums. That’s the main reason I got into it, because you’re out there every day—including days when it’s blowing 60 mph and you’re skiing in the ping-pong ball. Obviously we’re also first-aid response, we open trails, and we do avalanche control, technical rescue, and lift evac. I’ve been doing it 10 years, and every day is still different.

People say a lot of silly things on the slopes, and I don’t judge them for it. They’re inexperienced at what we do every day. A lot of folks don’t even know how to put their skis back on when they fall. Weird things can happen, too. Like, once I saw a fileted calf: a woman collided with her husband, and his ski edge sliced into her leg. It can get heated with collisions. No one ever thinks it’s their fault.

The dating scene on patrol is interesting. We have a few couples on staff. It’s hard; patrollers are kind of hot, you know? A-Basin is like a love story that way. It seems like all my best friends, I met on the Pali chair. “The Center of the Universe,” we call it.

A big perk of patrolling is you pretty much ski for free everywhere. You just have to get your director to call their director. Once you do a job like this, how do you do something else?


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Wally Kruse

Job: Snowplow driver, CDOT
Years in Summit: 17
Hometown: Colorado Springs

I started skiing at Breckenridge when I was 3, so I’ve seen a lot on these roads. The I-70 mess basically started with the Buddy Pass. It was getting a little bogged down before that, but then traffic started going nuts.

I supervise a crew that plows I-70 up to Eisenhower Tunnel. If it’s snowing, we’ll have 10 or 11 trucks plowing at once. We work left to right. That’s the only way to do it. If it’s a blizzard out, we will keep the right lane going up the hill. We don’t focus so much on passenger vehicles, because their traction is a lot better than semis’, which are our hazard. Once that right lane goes to crap, and those truckers start spinning out, that’s when you get your closures and jackknifes.

There are times when we can’t keep up with it. Some people will say, “Why do you have four plows abreast, and you’re not letting anyone by?” There’s a reason: we’re cleaning up the whole highway to make it that much safer for you. But they don’t understand that. They want to fly by the right side of our plows and get doused by a huge amount of snow and give us the middle finger because we just messed up their day.

When the wind is howling, sometimes you can’t even see a car length in front of you. I’ve had to stop in the middle of the road and just creep along. That’s the scary part. But I enjoy working weekends. I come to work, and I think: What can I do to keep these people rolling?


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Sarah Spalla

Job: Musher/kennel manager, Good Times Adventures, Breckenridge
Years in Summit: 11
Hometown: Mason City, Iowa

Growing up, my family had critters of every shape and size: rabbits, horses, dogs, cats, a cockatiel, parakeets, hamsters. Now I manage 163 huskies. We’re what people do the day they take off from skiing. We run 21 trips a day with six guests and eight dogs, and it’s rare we’re not booked solid. The dog yard is kind of like an aircraft carrier; I’ve got teams coming in and out every 20 minutes or so.

The dogs love to run. We are not making any of them do this; we are letting them do this. They’ve been bred for generations to pull, so whenever they get their harnesses on, they go crazy. There are a lot of different energies among the dogs that you have to control, and you have to pay attention. If somebody’s not feeling good or somebody’s got a limp, we have to catch it before it gets bad.

Most places where you go dogsledding, you sit in the basket, and your guide will drive you. Here, our guests drive the dog team, and the guide is out front on a snowmobile. It’s a lot to handle as a guide. We’re moving all day long—we never sit down. Some days it’s 35 degrees and sunny, but if it’s 20-below and snowing, we’re still going.

I like to say it’s easy to have a bad moment at the dog yard, but it’s hard to have a bad day. We have a pretty damn good time doing this.


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Todd Casey

Job: Ski instructor, Copper Mountain
Years in Summit: 24
Hometown: Rye, New Hampshire

We joke that nobody ever does what they went to college for, but I taught skiing at the University of Maine for a certificate program, and it’s what I’ve done for a living ever since.

Without a doubt, the most common error I see in people’s skiing is they lean back too much. Think of it this way: if you’re standing on your skis, and your belly button fell off, it should land between your feet. That said, being a ski instructor is so much more about the experience than the technical knowledge. You’re not just teaching someone to go left and right; you’re creating a great day for them.

I primarily teach private lessons, which are really expensive, but I learned years ago that just because I can’t afford to do it doesn’t mean they can’t afford to do it. As I tell my staff: You need to remember that every single one of your clients does something better than you. And if they’re here, they’re probably very successful at that.

Overall, I get to meet a lot of really interesting people, and I get to help them enjoy their vacation. I’m watching people have fun.

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